Deputies in Red Bluff, California, should have done more to get murderer Edwin Lara an attorney, according to Judge A. Michael Adler, who presided over Lara’s trial in 2017-18.
Lara’s indictment for the 2016 murder of Kaylee Sawyer on the Central Oregon Community College campus did not include charges of sexual abuse, a crime he admitted to in a Northern California jail following a brief but terrifying run from the law. But deputies appeared to blow past Lara’s request for a lawyer, so when the defense filed a motion to suppress Lara’s jailhouse confession, Adler had a choice.
“It wasn’t a straightforward decision,” said Adler in his office this month. “But it was important to make the right decision, not the popular decision.”
Adler, 66, retires at the end of the month from the Deschutes County Circuit Court. Over more than two decades on the bench, he’s earned a reputation in Central Oregon as a hard-nosed, decisive and occasionally grumpy finder of fact who’s heard the lion’s share of serious criminal cases in Bend over the past 20 years.
None are perhaps more serious than the case of Edwin Lara, who is serving a life sentence for Sawyer’s murder.
Often in death penalty cases, the defense seeks to delay and delay. In Lara’s case, Adler refused several attempts to push back a trial date. And court records show the defense entered plea negotiations shortly after Adler granted the defense’s motion to suppress Lara’s confession.
“It was probably because the defense knew at that point the case wasn’t going to get reversed. They knew they had a judge who — I’ll just say it — wasn’t going to give them a reversible error,” Adler said, citing the 1987 death penalty case of Randy Guzek, which has been reversed four times, including once in the U.S. Supreme Court, because of errors at trial and sentencing.
A native of Indiana, Adler moved to Colorado in the late 1970s to attend college and, later, Portland for law school. He remained there about a decade working in civil litigation. Central Oregon reminded him fondly of Colorado, and he moved to Bend in the early 1990s for the “same reasons other people move here.”
Adler soon fell into arbitration work. Several prominent local lawyers liked him in this role, and when a new judge position was approved by the Legislature in 1997, Adler was recommended to fill it.
“I’m cut out for it, honestly. I don’t have a difficult time making decisions,” he said. “I can’t say ‘never,’ but I very, very rarely look back on a decision and regret it. I don’t second-guess myself. If you’re constantly second-guessing your decisions, this is not the job for you.”
Laws are straightforwardly written. Courtroom procedure is typically clear. Knowledge of the law isn’t the most important attribute a judge can have, Adler said.
“What matters is judicial temperament — demeanor,” he said. “You can’t teach judicial demeanor.”
A 2018 decision by Adler made an unlikely splash at the state level.
In it, Adler ruled Trenton Sage, a FedEx driver who hit and killed a bicyclist in Bend, had not committed the traffic offense of failing to yield to a bicyclist. Adler ruled cyclist Jonathan Chase Adams was not protected by the bike lane he’d been riding in because he was struck in the intersection. But that was only part of the ruling, Adler noted.
A law was passed this legislative session clarifying that bike lanes in Oregon continue through intersections. Adler’s decision in the Sage case was cited by the bill’s supporters.
“I don’t know why they’ve seized on that case as a rallying point for bicyclist safety, because, I hate to say it, but I think that bicyclist was being very unsafe,” Adler said.
The case of Shantel Witt, who killed Bend cyclist Marika Stone in 2017, Adler said, was the “near opposite” situation — a cyclist doing everything right, killed by a person behaving recklessly. In the Witt case, the defendant was driving while high on prescription medication including her dog’s Xanax.
DUIIs in general are a source of annoyance for Adler. Last year he sentenced former firefighter-paramedic David Fincher to 22 years in prison — close to the maximum penalty — for drunkenly causing a devastating highway crash that killed 2-year-old Marley Peterson and seriously injured several others.
“DUIs bother me,” Adler said. “I think we have a problem. I think our laws on DUI have become too lax. So many people here are in diversion … Honestly, if you think about it for a minute, DUI is one of the most dangerous crimes committed because innocent people are killed.”
As a retired judge, Adler hopes to spend more at Mt. Bachelor. A pilot since 17, he hopes to partake in more “$100 hamburgers” — aviation slang for flying a couple hours for a meal — in his Cessna 177 Cardinal.
Adler doesn’t always go along with plea deals negotiated by the defense and prosecution. He finds listening to victim impact statements helpful in determining a criminal penalty. Because every case is a major case to the people involved, he said.
“Sometimes a case is considered a ‘minor’ burglary. Well, it’s not a minor burglary if you come home to YOUR house and YOUR door’s ajar and someone’s rummaged through YOUR stuff. Maybe it’s not a lot of money that’s been taken, but it’s stuff that’s important to you,” he said. “There are no minor cases.”
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